Vol 0, No 12
14 December 1998
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A Tragi-comedy in two acts
Gusztav KosztolanyiDramatis Personae: Victor Orban, Prime Minister. Thirtysomething. Football player. Decisive. Brooks no opposition.
Gabor Demszky. Mayor of Budapest. Free Democrat. Re-elected for a third term of office in October 1998. Cold-blooded pragmatist.
Act One. Scene, the Hungarian capital. Winter. The National Theatre scandal.
Orban: "The capital does not have a country; the country has a capital".
The National Theatre Project is the stuff of dreams of any self-respecting architect. Seldom have more column inches been devoted to a wrangle than over this evergreen which has been dragging on since the days of Count Szechenyi (described as "the greatest Hungarian"), to be more precise since 1898, when Count Keglevich, its then intendant, launched a press campaign calling for a new building fit to house the prestigious company at Erzsebet Square. Immediate counter-proposals were put forward and the debate continued until the First World War intervened to remove it temporarily from the political agenda.
In 1965, its premises at Blaha Lujza Square were unceremoniously demolished by the Communists with the construction of the first Socialist Metro line as a pretext. It stood literally and metaphorically in the way of progress, nostalgia not being at premium value in the days of ideological Puritanism.
Fifteen years ago, the World Association of Hungarians together with the Association of Hungarian Actors and the Architects' Association began collecting donations from the public all over the world (a successful action which led to the accumulation of some 1.65 billion forints), setting up a new foundation, the programme of which was presented to the 1992 Third World Congress of Hungarians: contact was to be established with the legal successor of the original foundation to provide it with a fresh mandate of ascertaining what had happened to the money already brought in, to continue canvassing for resources, to keep tabs on progress made towards resolving the issue of a National Theatre's status and function, to ensure that a National Theatre would be fit for an audience stretching beyond Hungary's frontiers, in other words that it would reflect the cultural aspirations of all Hungarians wherever nationality they possess, affording their art a spiritual homeland, ensuring proper management of existing funds, following closely the debate on the site of the Theatre, lobbying the government to guarantee the Theatre's status as the flagship of Hungarian cultural endeavour by promoting the involvement of suitable professional bodies, to secure adequate support so that it would be universally recognised and hailed by Hungarians across the globe as representing the entire nation.
This grandiose statement of aims throws a number of implicit points into high relief: firstly, what we are dealing with here is more than glass and concrete, it is highly emotive. This is to be an edifice to rival similar public commemorative works from the turn of the last century such as Hero's Square or the Underground. It is a symbol of the invisible bonds that unite Hungarians beyond the crass frontiers of map makers and statesman, mystical bonds based on language and perceived heritage that are presumed to run deeper than administrative categorisations such as nationality. It is to crystallise national sentiment, to render it tangible. It is to serve as an inspiration, to evoke a glow of pride in Hungarian achievement, to soothe the ache of loss kept alive ever since the Treaty of Trianon, to provide comfort for linguistic isolation.
The mood of hankering after the glorious past and lost grandeur can also be distilled from arguments in favour of situating the Theatre elsewhere in Pest, such as those to be found in the edition of Magyar Nemzet of 26/11/98. Here, the author, an architect, drew attention to the role a Theatre could have as a hub for an entire district. The Theatre could proclaim to an increasingly globalised and homogenised world that Hungary is still unique, is still on the map and has not succumbed to the pressures of Americanisation altogether. The edifice could catalyse regeneration and revitalisation of a decayed, deprived inner city area, attracting other investments, enhancing the reputation of the capital as a whole, endowing it with the prestige of a World City. In short, the project is an opportunity too good to pass up. The author goes on to wax lyrical about creating galleries, cosy pubs, promenades, venues where individuals can meet and engage in civilised conversation, the great virtue of the urban lifestyle. Clearly, these plans are steeped in the heritage of the long-lost literary cafes, of which only a few tantalising remnants remain, and which would provide a welcome antidote to the contagion of commercialism that is sweeping the land where all a town planner can otherwise dream of is where to locate the next glittering and soulless shopping mall. Of course the National Theatre is an idea that captures the imagination of the creative segments of the elite, of course it has massive potential on the drawing board.
It is at this stage that sordid reality elbows its way into the proceedings. In the shape of scandal, or, to be more precise, in the shape of a respectable-looking elderly gentleman, Mr. Janos Latorcai, the candidate for the Young Democrats (Fidesz, Orban's party) at the local government elections in mid-October. He was standing for the office of mayor of Budapest. "Do you have a programme already?' was the question printed by a photo of Mr. Latorcai in the newspapers. "We do" the reply. "Convince yourself that our programme is good for you too". The slogan was catchy, the PR men had done their work well: "At home in Budapest", though not well enough to convince voters. Whereas at the elections, Fidesz did rather well, consolidating their position as the ruling party in the coalition, their confidence, understandable as it was in the afterglow of victory at Parliamentary level, proved overblown. Mr. Latorcai was defeated. By Gabor Demszky, villain of the piece (as far as Fidesz are concerned at any rate. Boo, hiss from the right hand rows of the auditorium as he enters, stage left).
In March, the foundation stone of the National Theatre was laid by the representative of the Horn government at Erzsebet Square. In 1996, the Horn administration agreed to put up 6 billion forints for building the theatre, a figure which, as it emerged, was completely unrealistic, so much so in fact, that certain commentators have described the budgeting as a deliberate political trap laid to make life difficult for the successor government in the case of Horn's defeat. Which is exactly what has happened. Orban has been left to pick up the pieces, but has not done so with good grace or skill, but in a highly damaging way that has left him seeming autocratic and high-handed. But that is jumping ahead in the plot...
According to the original plans, the Theatre was to have a seating capacity - determined not by the architect who submitted the successful bid but by government decree - of 500 for the main auditorium and 120 for the studio. This gave rise to immediate objections, since many theatres of this capacity already exist not just in Budapest but in the provinces as well and that therefore there was nothing to distinguish the new Theatre by: it would be reduced to a sterile symbol that cost a great deal of hard-pressed taxpayers' money. Moreover, detractors cried, too much attention was being paid to the facade and not enough to the actual needs of the prospective audience. Lack of cloakroom facilities and escape routes were subject to particularly sharp condemnation.
In the meantime, once the contract had been awarded (much to the chagrin of the World Association of Hungarians, architects from abroad were not deemed eligible to participate, automatically excluding members of Hungarian minorities, whose Theatre you will recall this was also meant to be) the costs had spiralled. Increasing the size of the site from 18 to 28,000 square metres and the number of seats to 625 and 200 for the main auditorium and the studio respectively did not exactly facilitate budgetary austerity and the cost situation was exacerbated by the care needed to erect the Theatre directly above the point of convergence of three Metro lines by Deak Ferenc Square and moving an entire bus station out of the way first. Total cost 19 billion forints, broken down as follows: 10 billion for the construction work, 7 billion on the stage technology, 2 billion miscellaneous costs (chiefly incurred by the work on the bus station). Contrast this with the total available funds (including the public donations) of 10.2 billion forints of which 1.8 have already been spent and the problems become abundantly clear.
Strolling through central Pest around Erzsebet Square, the eye is confronted by the unedifying spectacle of a huge gash, surrounded by boarded-up fencing. If Prince Charles were to clap eyes on it, he would doubtless refer to it as a "carbuncle". Nothing but lifeless concrete and twisted, rusting cables. Pedestrians diverted, car access complicated. A nuisance of the first degree to the city's inhabitants, particularly those who would like to travel either on the Metro or by bus.
Even before the local government elections, trouble was brewing, with severe doubts being expressed as to the appropriateness of Erzsebet Square for the building. Orban proclaimed that work on the site would be put on hold until the election results were available, implying conditionality between a Fidesz victory and the future of the Theatre. The National Court of Auditors produced a report which deemed the existing work entirely satisfactory, but warned that it could not be completed on the basis of the funds allocated to it. This was manna from heaven for Orban in the aftermath of Demszky's humiliating triumph. Using the budgetary trump card, he announced that the Theatre could not be built on Erzsebet Square, but would be moved to the Varosliget (City Park), where construction would be much cheaper (it also served to put Demszky in his place by showing him who was really in charge). Henceforth, the Erzsebet Square site would be transformed into an underground garage (he conveniently ignored the calculations carried out by the weekly journal HVG, the Hungarian equivalent of The Economist which demonstrated that the cost of building a single parking space at Erzsebet Square would be around 20 to 30 million forints as compared with 1.5 to 2 million elsewhere in the city) with a carefully landscaped park on top.
Demszky parried swiftly, sending a letter to the Prime Minister reminding him of the contract signed with the City of Budapest which gifted the Erzsebet Square site to the government with the exclusive purpose of constructing the National Theatre there. According to the terms of the contract, should building work cease, the government would have ten years within which to hand it back to the city in its original state.
Tempers are frayed. The fate of the National Theatre now hangs in the balance. [Act Two next week in ENP].
Gusztav Kosztolanyi, 14 December 1998
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